You could say that the three biggest challenges facing the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding program are money, money, and money. The service has a clear vision of how to construct a networked, flexible fleet suitable for use across the spectrum of conflict. But it only gets $13-14 billion per year to build the warships that will populate that fleet. That isn’t much for a country that relies on its Navy every day to sustain nuclear deterrence, assure free transit of sea lanes, and carry the global war on terror to the enemy. However, with the government borrowing $4 billion per day to stay afloat and the cost of military pay and benefits rising faster than inflation, more money for shipbuilding will be hard to find. Here are the three biggest challenges Navy shipbuilding will face in the years ahead — all of them money-driven.
Ballistic-missile subs. The 14 Trident ballistic-missile submarines that provide secure retaliatory forces to the nation’s nuclear posture will begin retiring in 2027. Because bombers and land-based missiles will contribute less firepower to the strategic deterrent in the future, the nation needs an even more survivable successor to Trident. To be ready in 2027, the first new boat must begin construction in 2019, which means commencing the six-year design cycle in 2012. But R&D on the new class will cost $15 billion, the lead boat will cost $10 billion, and each of the eleven subs that follow will cost $5 billion — resulting in a total acquisition cost of $80 billion. Where is the Navy going to find $5 billion per year in a shipbuilding account that only totals $13-14 billion without deferring construction of surface vessels? This challenge is made worse by the spreading realization that the service will need to continue construction of Virginia-class attack subs into the production period for the Trident replacement.
Amphibious-warfare ships. The Marine Corps has a requirement for 38 amphibious-warfare ships to support fast deployment of two Marine expeditionary brigades and sustain global presence. During the Bush years, Navy leaders seemed to support that goal — along with plans to buy new maritime pre-positioning ships, naval fire support, and “forcible-entry” equipment. But during the first year of the Obama Administration, the consensus within the Department of the Navy about future expeditionary-warfare needs came unraveled due to budgetary pressures — so much so that political appointees want to change the name from forcible entry to “theater access.” The new phrase signals a drastic reduction in Navy support for the Marine Corps, and the Corps has responded by briefing an alternate vision of the future fleet to Congress that is at odds with Navy plans. The official line is that amphibious warfare is less important than it used to be, but the real problem is lack of money for a complete maritime posture.
Surface combatants. The Navy proposed three new classes of surface combatants at the beginning of the decade: a new land-attack destroyer designated DD(X) designed to provide high rates of precision fire in support of forces ashore; a missile-defense cruiser designated CG(X) to counter increasingly sophisticated ballistic threats; and a high-speed “Littoral Combat Ship” that could take the place of frigates in shallow-water operations. It has now decided to cancel the land-attack destroyer after building three and re-think the cruiser, opting instead to build improved Aegis destroyers while upgrading most of the Aegis warships already in the fleet. The Littoral Combat Ship is beginning to look like a winner — both variants performed well in sea trials — but the outlook for larger surface combatants is clouded by doubts about how to deal with future ballistic threats, Marine complaints about lack of fire support, and industrial-base concerns. It is far from clear how warfighting needs and political equities can be reconciled within projected budgets.
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